Last summer, local artist Jessy Hanson began visiting with members of the local population of people without housing as part of a multi-disciplinary undertaking that would emerge as a pop-up art exhibition intended to provoke conversations about the experiences and realities faced by some of Flathead County’s most overlooked residents.
Called “The Home We Carry: A Visual Anthology of the Unhoused,” the exhibition opened to the public earlier this month at the old Kalispell Malting and Brewing Company at 5 Sixth Avenue W.
Hung up along the walls of the old building are a series of images Hanson drew and painted depicting the hands and feet of those she interviewed last summer, a focus that was driven by both the resonance Hanson saw in such a narrow visual focus, and a desire to avoid producing work that felt exploitative.
“Hands, they definitely can be more expressive even than a portrait can be,” Hanson said. “Your hands can kind of tell the story of the life you’ve lived.”
In each pairing, Hanson includes one drawing on cardboard, representing what she described as “the temporary” and an embodiment of the “substrate that the unhoused themselves use to communicate.” The second piece in each set is a painting done on wood, depicting in vivid detail each joint, vein and nail. Accompanying those visuals are some of the stories told to Hanson by the people she spoke with in conversations that focused on understanding what home means to them.
“I kind of expected people to have something tangible that they had with them that felt like home. And most of them, it was intangible,” Hanson said. “So, it was more of a feeling or idea that they held on to that was home for them. An emotion, something more abstract.”
For the project, she said she provided monetary compensation to participants for their time, and assured them that they would not be identified in her work. Hanson intends to give proceeds from the pop-up back to local organizations that help with the homeless population, including Samaritan House, the Flathead Warming Center and Sparrows Nest. The show will culminate with a closing reception on Oct. 28 that will include a performative dance piece involving some of the cardboard drawings Hanson made. The dance will be filmed, and Hanson said she plans to donate the video to the advocacy organizations for possible use in promotional materials. Hanson continues to add artwork to the walls of the pop-up space, so the show is not yet in its final stages.
Hanson is a mother of three young children, and she often finds time to pursue her work as an artist by working deep into the night when everyone else is asleep. This project is funded by a Montana Arts Council grant, which came with a Nov. 1 deadline for completion. She spent about 10 hours on each piece, which she said forced her to be more intentional with each aspect of the work.
“This whole project, the honor of it is not lost on me. It’s been really humbling,” Hanson said.
The stories Hanson heard were powerful. One person told Hanson how they had never wanted to live a boring life, and instead pursued adventures that took them across the world.
“I have end stage COPD now, so the adventures are done but I am desperate to share these stories I have lived so that they don’t die with me, but become a legacy of stories,” the person told Hanson. Those words hang beside a picture of hands positioned vertically as if cradling an object, and gently pulling it in toward themselves.
One of the conversations that Hanson described as especially powerful took place when she spoke with a woman who does not have a home, but has a job and a reliable income. Hanson said the woman was hesitant to talk, but eventually relaxed and became vulnerable and open about her struggles.
“She works several jobs and she works hard and she never thought she would be homeless, but there’s just nowhere to live here that she can afford on her wages,” Hanson said. “And so, her problem is really kind of becoming very prevalent in the Valley where it’s not really even about being homeless, it’s about where do you go? She has no option. And so, you could feel her drive to want to keep trying, but her exhaustion.”
If someone were to view the exhibition in a clockwise manner, the last piece they would arrive at shows a painting of woman’s hand clasping that of a child. There is no accompanying cardboard piece. The narrative is titled “The Artist.” It’s about Hanson herself, and the time she spent growing up living out of her car because of what she described as “a tumultuous household” that left her “without a home that felt safe.”
The narrative Hanson wrote concludes like this: “The home I carry is the feeling of connection and joy with my children and the foundation of love that we have cultivated in our home.”
“The Home We Carry: A Visual Anthology of the Unhoused” is available by appointment only through Oct. 27. Appointments can be booked at arrowleafcreative.com. The closing reception for the pop-up is planned for Oct. 28 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and will include a performative dance, artist talk, and light refreshments.
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